“Mobile-first” and “mobile-only” are almost clichés in terms of current app design. But overuse of “mobile” language aside, iOS and Android users have definitely benefitted from this new focus from developers on producing software that exploits and respects the unique capabilities of smaller devices. Maybe even too much so: I recently combed thru my app drawer and felt overwhelmed by the nearly 100 apps – most of them both beautifully designed and easy to use – in it. My first instinct was to simply cut myself off from many of the services provided by these apps, so as to simplify my experience and reduce app count. I initially thought about completely ditching RSS reading and some social networking, for example.
Ultimately, I opted to do something different and instead I redistributed my workflow across my mobile device (a Nexus 4), my Mac, and my wifi-enabled Wii U. Although many of the apps and services I was using had versions available for both Android and OS X (and Web), I decided to restrict many of them to only one of my devices and ignore its other versions. So for example, I kept the mobile Google+ Hangouts app, but eschewed its desktop Web/Gmail version, and likewise kept my desktop RSS reader (Reeder) while ditching my previous mobile RSS clients.
The most difficult, yet most rewarding, part of this process was determining which apps and services I could remove from my phone and perform only on my Mac or Wii U. Amid the swirl of “mobile-only”/”mobile-first lingo,” I reflexively felt that I was selling myself short by offloading many of the excellent apps and services I used onto my relatively old-fashioned Mac and my dainty Wii U, but the experience has been liberating. I have improved my phone’s battery life, reduced clutter in its launcher, and restored some piece of mind: there are fewer things to blankly stare at and anxiously check on my phone while on the train, at the very least.
More importantly, I know have a firmer sense of what I want each device, with its accompanying apps and services, to do. The productivity bump and happiness that I have experienced has also made me realize, finally, why Windows 8 has flopped. Trying to treat all devices the same and have them run the same apps is a recipe for poor user experience and too many duplicate services. It becomes more difficult to know what any given device excels at, or what a user should focus on when using it. If focus is truly saying no to a thousand things, then it’s important to say “no” to certain apps or services on certain platforms. Steve Jobs famously said “no” to Flash on iOS, but one doesn’t even have to be that wonky or technical when creating workflow boundaries and segmentation in his/her own life: I’ve said “no” to Web browsing on my Wii U and to Netflix on my phone, for example.
With this move toward device segmentation and focus in mind, I’ll finally delve into the tasks that I know do only on desktop or in the living room, so as to relieve some of the strain and overload from my mobile device. I perform these tasks using only my Mac or my Wii U, and I do not use their corresponding apps or services on my Nexus 4.
RSS can be tricky: you probably shouldn’t subscribe to any frequently updated sites, since they will overwhelm your feed and leave you with a “1000+ unread” notification that makes combing thru the list a chore. Rather, sites that push out an update once or twice per day (or every other day) are ideal material for RSS. Rewarding RSS reading requires you to have specialized taste borne out of general desktop Web browsing (see below), as well as a tinkerer’s mindset for adding and subtracting feeds. It’s a workflow meant for a desktop.
Granted, there are some good RSS clients for Android: Press and Minimal Reader Pro spring to mind. However, neither is great at managing feeds due to their minimalism and current reliance on the soon-to-be-extinct Google Reader. Plus, I’ve yet to find an Android rival for Reeder, which I use on my Mac an which is also available for iOS. The time-shifted nature of RSS also makes it something that I often only get around to once I’m back home, not working, and sitting down, with Reeder in front of me, and so I forego using a mobile client most of the time. This may change if and when RSS undergoes its needed post-Google Reader facelift.
The thrill of wide-open desktop browsing doesn’t exist on mobile. Maybe it’s because most mobile sites are bastardizations of their desktop forbearers, or because screen size is a limiting factor. Moreover, most mobile apps are still much better and much faster than their equivalent websites. I haven’t disabled Chrome on my phone, but I seldom use it unless another app directed me there. Instead, I prefer news aggregators like Flipboard and Google Currents, or strong native apps like The Verge, Mokriya Craigslist, and Reddit is Fun Golden Platinum.
Of this trio, only Tumblr has a first-rate Android app in terms of aesthetics and friendliness to battery life. It’s easy for me to see why I don’t like using any of them on mobile: they all began as desktop websites, and then had to be downsized into standalone apps. Alongside these aesthetic and functional quibbles with website-to-app transitions, I also consciously limit my Facebook and LinkedIn intake by only checking them on desktop, and in the case of Tumblr, I may create content for it on my phone, but I usually save it to Google Drive (if only to back it up, which I’ll always end up doing one way or another) and then finish formatting and editing it on my desktop before posting it.
Twitter is a different story, due to its hyper-concise format. I’ll talk about it in the next entry. Google+ – which is almost completely ignorable as a standlone site on desktop – is also much better on mobile, wherein it performs useful background functions like photo backup. Mobile-first networks like Instagram and Vine are obvious exclusions as well.
Spotify is a unique case. Its Android app is certainly functional, but unstable and not so good with search. It is difficult to get a fully populated list of returned search results, and in many cases you must hit the back button and re-key the search. Its Mac app is much better – the gobs of menus and lengthy lists are right at home on the desktop. For listening to music on my Nexus 4, I use Google Play Music, where I have a large, precisely categorized personal collection accessible via a clean UI, and the terrific holo-styled Pocket Casts, which I use to play weekly trance podcasts from Above & Beyond and Armin Van Buuren, among others.
I’m not a huge fan of Netflix on tablets or large-screen phones. I do probably 99% of my Netflix viewing on an HDTV connected to my Wii U, with the remainder done on my Mac. I can see the appeal of viewing Netflix while lying in bed, so I don’t rule out its mobile possibilities altogether. However, most of the video watching I do on mobile is via YouTube, Google Play Movies, or my own movie collection as played by MX Player Pro.
Skype is a good desktop messenger and video calling service, but it may as well be DOA on Android, especially stock Android. Google+ Hangouts (the successor to Google Talk) is much simpler, since it requires only a Google+ account and has a dead-simple video calling/messaging interface. Plus, Skype for Android is unfortunately a battery-drainer, in my experience. That said, Skype’s shortcomings on mobile are balanced by its strengths on desktop: its native Mac app is still an appealing alternative to having to open up Google+ in Safari/Chrome.
In part two, I shall look at apps or services that I now do exclusively on mobile, as well as the select group of apps and services that I use on both desktop and mobile.
Looking to deck-out Chrome with useful buttons (and make your URL bar smaller)? Here’s a round-up of some of the most popular, easiest-to-use, and productivity-enhancing extensions for Google’s browser:
AdBlock blocks all ads on the Internet (although you can, during setup, opt to give Google’s display ads a pass; individual domains may be greenlighted later, too). It’s technically free (as a pay-what-you-want download), and as such I dont understand why people still complain about things like this.
Pocket’s dead-simple concept (save an entire page, permanently) for viewing later) for consuming content is addictive. Simply click to save anything for later. It beautifully reformats text for reading and even saves videos.
You’ll need an Android phone/tablet with Jelly Bean and the PushBullet app in order to use this. PushBullet speedily pushes links, files, or lists to your Android devices, so that they pop-up in your notification menu or even in the enormously popular DashClock Widget (if you have enabled the PushBullet extension). From there, you can tap them to have instant access to their contents. I was skeptical at first since I could already easily save things to Google Drive or Pocket, but PushBullet is perfect for making sure that you can send things like PDFs or URLs in particular to your phone with minimal hassle and maximum speed.
Self-explanatory: it saves just about anything to Google Drive.
This is useful not only for sharing things to G+, but for seeing how many others have already shared the same page to G+, too. It’s a neat diagnostics tool combined with a social tool.
AddThis can share the current page or selected content with a variety of social networks, including Facebook, LinkedIn, StumbleUpon, and others.
A useful in-browser dictionary, it also lets you double-click words on any page to get a popup definition.
This extension fetches a list of pages similar to your current webpage.
Saves all or some of the images on the current page so that you can edit them in the PicMonkey app for Chrome.
This lets you use different user-agent strings in Chrome. Can be especially useful for the ARM Samsung Chromebook, which some sites interpret as a mobile device.
11. Knew Tab
A great alternative to the default tab. It shows weather, unread Gmail count, RSS feed, Facebook notifications and messages, and time.
12. Missing E
This is a feature-rich extension that gives you some more options for how your Tumblr dashboard appears and operates.
A neat Facebook extension which lets you change the color scheme, block ads, style fonts, and create custom UI elements like a photo pane at the wright and a sticky pad.
This extension lets you run YouTube in night mode (with black background) and adds some extra controls such as volume adjustment via trackpad gestures.
15. Google Translate
Translates the entire current page.
-The ScreenGrab Team
Chrome OS has come on big in 2013, thanks to the proliferation of cheap but reliable machines from Samsung and Acer, as well as the meaningless (for now) glitz of the Chromebook Pixel. While some people may easily embrace Chrome OS’s continuous, Web-based model of computing, others may balk at a platform that has no native apps except for a browser and file manager.
Fortunately, Chrome OS still gives us the illusion of having discrete apps that can be docked and clicked to open their own webpages. Here’s a list of some easy-to-use apps to get started
Recent hacks aside, Evernote is a reliable tool for storing or creating just about any type of content (text, photos, quotes, videos, screenshots). The Web-based version is fast and lightweight but still highly functional, making it a great counterpart to the native Evernote apps elsewhere.
This “app” takes you the Chrome-optimized version of the NYT sight, which is far less-cluttered than its standard page. It also supports Chrome OS’s desktop notification system, which is handy for keeping track of breaking news.
Gmail can sometimes be slow, an issue further compounded by limited resources on many Chromebook models. Gmail Offline solves two main issues for Chromebooks: it lets you manage your email more quickly, and it gives your device some real (and rare) offline functionality.
Infinite, free, customizable listening to NPR stations.
I’ve actually gotten GIMP to run (albeit painfully slowly) on my ARM Chromebook, but this is a solution much more suited to Chrome OS’s style. It allows for some light photo editing and sharing, with the option to upgrade for more sophisticated features. It also has a handy extension for detecting, capturing and editing images on the current page.
This one actually comes bundled with Chrome OS. Its Web app is one of the easiest ways to listen to music online, and a must-have in lieu of a fully functional Spotify Web app. You can listen to any of the songs stored in your Google Play Music locker, or songs purchased from the Google Play Store.
A Web app that runs in a native app-style standalone window, TweetDeck is the best way to use Twitter on Chrome OS. Luckily, it also seems to be getting even greater attention from Twitter now that the iOS, Android, and AIR version of TweetDeck are being retired.
My favorite text editor for Chrome OS. White on black, simple, and fast.
No native IM apps? No problem! IMO lets you manage all your major IM accounts (AIM, Skype, Jabber, Google Talk) from its Web app.
Perhaps a stretch, since this app is just a link to the usual Pandora website, but it’s free music (or paid, higher-quality music, if you have a subscription) nonetheless.
-The ScreenGrab Team